The Work of Shirin Neshat – 1500 word Art Essay 2.1/1st degree standard

Between the Local and the Global: The Work of Shirin Neshat


Coming across Shirin Neshat’s work for the first time, viewing her two screen installation Turbulent (1998), was an unsettling and powerful experience. Trapped between two directly opposed screens, the viewer, watching a male singer (Fig.1), cannot avoid the uncomfortable presence of a shadowy veiled figure facing away on the opposing screen (Fig.2).  As the male singer stops, the female figure in the video spins around, forcing the viewer to re-direct attention and then launches into a remarkable song, which echoes and resonates around the gallery (Fig.3). I was intrigued by this installation, but also left with many questions – why is there no audience for the woman but there is for the male singer, for example? Leaving the gallery I was left wondering if I needed more ‘local’ knowledge of Neshat’s context, and what relevance this could have for an artist based in America showing work here in a London gallery. It was this mixture of the ‘global’ language of the art world – the use of the video installation and speakers in the space, for example, which would be recreated at galleries and museums around the Western world, and the ‘local’ context, references and imagery of the work that led to its unsettling impact on me and left me wanting to research more. After reading and researching around the subject further, it is proposed here that ‘hybridity’ is vital to Neshat’s work as she uses art to negotiate, draw attention to and unsettle any simple relationship between local and global discourses and boundaries.


Wilson and Dissanayake in their analysis of the local and global propose that it is their intersection that is the important point, “linkage, disjuncture and fracture at the neo-capitalist border, the counterlogic of the both/and” (1996, p.5). The local and global are intermeshed, in other words. One cannot discuss one without discussing the other, and it is through their mixing that communities and identities can be productively re-shaped. My experience of Neshat’s work immediately drew attention to this mixing. In Turbulent, she uses a globalised art language and addresses a globalised art audience, which intersects with the local cultural references she makes – that women are banned from singing in public in Iran for example (Egoyan, 2001). The effect of this is to actively create the disjunctures and fractures that Wilson and Dissanayake allude to. Now this woman is singing in the public space of the gallery, yet also is not singing in the location of the film. Globalisation can be understood as the imposition and universalisation of specific Western capitalist market values, while localism can be understood as a return to the authenticity of local cultures as a way to counter this (Wilson and Dissanayake, 1996, p.2). In another sense, any such ‘authenticity’ could also be seen as manufactured, marketed for a global audience interested in the exoticism it contains. Neshat’s work negotiates these definitions. Turbulent draws attention not only to local problems – the position of women, but also to the powerful local force of the woman’s voice itself. The ‘global’ viewer is left in the uncomfortable position of both desiring the exotic product, emphasised through the slick beauty of the video installation, and of unavoidably imposing Western moral values such as gender equality onto readings of the work. The two screen structure allows a focus on both/and, while the viewer is also trapped in both/and the local and global. It is interesting to turn to Neshat’s responses to such issues. In an interview (LeKay, no year) she discusses how her work does deal with local issues in her home country of Iran but not in a “realistic” way. Instead she works conceptually, emphasising the importance of her position as an “exile” from her homeland. Caught between cultures, this could be seen not as disabling but as offering an enabling vantage point, providing critical distance and using an inbetween position as a way to create new identities from her work. This is made directly physical for the viewer in the installation of Turbulent. Never able to focus entirely on one screen, one is always aware of the presence of the other, even if they cannot both be seen at once. The physical turning and attention-shifting this causes is a powerful materialisation of the disjunctive nature of occupying a space in between cultures at the level of identity.


The idea of this inbetween space as something potentially productive and challenging to both the local (Iranian) and global (Americanised) cultures it is formed from can be read in Homi Bhabha’s analysis of ‘hybridity’. The hybrid is the mixed, where cultures touch (1994, p.296), and he argues that it can unsettle binary differences, causing panic (p.296), terror and ambivalence (p.162), and something fundamentally different to the cultures from which it emerges, “[hybridity] causes the dominant discourse to split along the axis of its power…it is not a third term that resolves tensions between cultures” (p.162). This seems a productive framework in which to situate Neshat’s work. On one hand she draws on her Iranian heritage, through, for example, the use of metaphor and allegory to avoid censorship (Khaleeli, 2010) and direct engagement with the political context of Iran (Dabashi, 2011b). On the other hand, she lives and works in America and makes work consciously for a global audience (Khaleeli, 2010). This situation has led to some critics analysing her practice specifically as hybrid. Kromm and Bakewell, for example (2010, p.285), discuss how her work deals with “complex geographies” of her negotiation between cultures, while it can be oversimplified by Western audiences who tend to read it as more critical of Iran. While this may be true to an extent, the work has enough subtlety to enable it to do more than this. It could be argued, instead, that Neshat is aware of this Western ‘global’ reading of her work and incorporates it into the work’s meaning and effect. Turbulent, for example, could be interpreted simply as critique of the position of women under Sharia law, yet the strange beauty of the song, combined with the affective quality of the installation allows it do much more than this. As Egoyan argues in his response to the work (2001), the “sinuous, sensual” nature of the song allows it to have more impact than simple critique. His description of the “primal emotion” that the singer’s wordless song causes could be interpreted as a version of the ‘panic’ discussed by Bhabha. Between and across cultures, between and across screens, hybrid identity produces a complexity of response, unsettling fixed identities of artist and viewer.


Considering another of Neshat’s works Women of Allah (1993-1997) allows this analysis to be taken further. The work is a series of black and white portraits of women, mainly of Neshat herself, covered in veils and Farsi writing. The first photograph here, for example (Fig. 4) is complex and double in its significations. On one hand, it suggests the violence inflicted upon women through the way the face is split into two by the gun. On the other hand, her possession of the gun suggests a form of female empowerment. On one hand, she is objectified for the presumed Western male gaze, an exotic image of an ‘other women’ with the stereotypical violent and repressive imagery familiar to Western representations of Iran and the Islamic world in general. On the other hand, she returns the gaze of the viewer, staring directly back into the camera, refusing to be simply objectified. On one hand, the writing across her face adds to her signification as non-Western ‘other’. On the other hand, with the added context of it as female-written verse, it becomes another reference to feminine empowerment. In the other image (Fig.5), the exoticism of the writing on the hand is combined with the sexualisation of Hollywood or advertising images, the fingers directing the gaze to the woman’s lips. This mixing of codes and cultures draws attention to the position of the viewer and the way that women are represented as objects from a ‘global’ viewpoint. The work, in other words, deals in complex ways with Neshat’s hybrid position, the tensions in her own identity emphasised further through the use of self-portraiture. It incorporates not only references to Iranian history but also to Western representations, objectifications and sexualisations of Iranian women, repelling or ‘panicking’ global translations of her work through its insistence on ‘local’ Farsi texts.


The work does operate as a critique, yet Neshat also sells her work within a global art market. She may critique Western representations of ‘other’ identities, yet she is also necessarily caught up in such power relations when her work is sold. Her work could be understood as an ‘exotic’ product for a global Western art market, yet it also draws attention to this in a self-aware way.  It asks the question of what is the relation to women in particular to discourses of local, global and hybrid identity (Shohat, 2001; Meskimmon, 2003), and ultimately, it resists any attempt to fix identity, focusing instead on contradictions and overlaps (Wallinger, 2006). Concepts of local/global culture and hybridity are very useful frameworks, therefore, from which to analyse and interpret Neshat’s work. My own response is that the aesthetics of Neshat’s work, the use of the opposing screens in Turbulent for example, allows it to have such powerful effect, forcing viewers to consider their own relation to questions of hybridity, local and global culture. In order to develop this research further, I would like to focus on some of Neshat’s more recent work, in particular her recent film work.





Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.


Danto, A. & Abramovic, M. (2010) Shirin Neshat. New York: Rizzoli.


Dabashi, H. (2011a) ‘It was in China, Late One Moonless Night’, in A.Davidson (ed.) The World is My Home: A Hamid Dabashi Reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Transnational.


Dabashi, H. (2011b) Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Egoyan, A. (2001) ‘Turbulent’, The Filmmaker,


Khaleeli, H. (2010) ‘Shirin Neshat: A Long Way from Home’, The Guardian, Sunday 13th June 2010,


Kromm, J. and Bakewell, S.B. (2010) A History of Visual Culture. Oxford: Berg.


LeKay, J. (no year) ‘Interview with Shirin Neshat’, Heyoka,


Meskimmon, M. (2003) Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics. London: Routledge.


Neshat, S. (2005) Shirin Neshat 2002-2005. New York: Barbara Gladstone Gallery.


Neshat, S. (1998) Documentation of Turbulent,


Neshat, S. (1996) ‘Women of Allah’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,


Shohat, E. (2001) Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Wallinger, H. (2006) Transitions: Race, Culture and the Dynamics of Change. Berlin: LIT.


Wilson, R. and Dissanayake, W. (1996) Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.



Appendix 1: Images



Fig 1: Still from Turbulent (1998), two-screen video installation.

Fig 2: Still from Turbulent (1998), two-screen video installation.


Fig 3: Still from Turbulent (1998), two-screen video installation.

Fig.4: from Women of Allah (1993-1997), pen and ink on photograph, 30.5 x 22.9 cm.


Fig.5: from Women of Allah (1993-1997), pen and ink on photograph, 21 x 14.2 cm.




Appendix 2: Annotated Bibliography


Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Homi Bhabha discusses in detail his philosophy of ‘hybridity’ as a powerful and disruptive creative space between cultures. This has provided a useful critical framework for engaging with Neshat’s work.


Dabashi, H. (2011a) ‘It was in China, Late One Moonless Night’, in A.Davidson (ed.) The World is My Home: A Hamid Dabashi Reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Transnational.

Dabashi discusses some of the contexts of Neshat’s work such as the importance of protest within Shia culture. This was useful background reading to understand ‘local’ contexts more clearly.


Egoyan, A. (2001) ‘Turbulent’, The Filmmaker,

Egoyan’s discusses his personal response to Turbulent in this article. This was useful in helping to think of the relation between the directly political and the affective in Neshat’s work.


Khaleeli, H. (2010) ‘Shirin Neshat: A Long Way from Home’, The Guardian, Sunday 13th June 2010,

Discussing not only her more recent work but also her practice in general, this article provided a good insight into Neshat’s own views on her work and how it relates to the themes of this research.


Kromm, J. and Bakewell, S.B. (2010) A History of Visual Culture. Oxford: Berg.

Kromm and Bakewell describe Neshat specifically within terms of hybridity. Their analysis could be criticised for not fully considering the complexities of viewer identification, or the affective role of aesthetics in her work.


Wilson, R. and Dissanayake, W. (1996) Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

This was a useful basic text for understanding definitions and discussions of issues at stake within the discourse of local/global culture. While they did not discuss artwork directly, it was interesting and productive to combine this theoretical research with analysis of the artworks.